Exploring the work of Justin Kurzel, a director whose films explore myth, identity and traumatic moments in Australian history.
A prominent presence among the recent wave of Australian screen directors, Justin Kurzel rattled audiences and impressed critics with his debut feature Snowtown (2010) – a bitingly brutal dramatisation of the infamous 'bodies in the barrels' murders during the 1990s. Using a largely non-professional cast, Kurzel approaches the material naturalistically, exploring how the vulnerable can be preyed upon and manipulated through fear and intimidation. The film went on to win several AACTA awards, including Kurzel's first AACTA award for Best Director.
Watch clips and read more about Snowtown on our australianscreen website.
Since Snowtown, one of Kurzel's most daring works is True History of the Kelly Gang (2019), a film inspired by Peter Carey's Booker-winning novel.
While the Ned Kelly story figures largely in Australia's cultural imagination, Kurzel's adaptation delivers an alternative postmodern vision complemented by an anachronistic score, rock'n'roll-influenced aesthetic and a memorable central performance by the English actor George MacKay:
The film unashamedly blurs the line between fact and fable. The above clip communicates this point literally and ironically through its opening text, stating 'nothing about this story is true'. We then hear the first of Ned's many diary entries (spoken as voice-over) dedicated to his infant child (which is also fiction). Ned tells how he was raised on lies and silences. He continues by saying it was important for his child to know the truth about his story and background – including the age-old struggle of the Irish under the English oppressors.
An aerial shot accompanies these words, brilliantly filmed by cinematographer Ari Wegner, showing a man on horseback in a flowing red dress, galloping across a stark outback landscape. The 'frocking-up' of bushrangers is a recurring element throughout the film's 3 chapters: 'Boy', 'Man' and 'Monitor' (the third chapter referring to Kelly's time as a bushranger). Through this sort of imagery – and a homoerotic subtext found in later scenes – Kurzel playfully challenges typical heteronormative depictions of Kelly as a macho folk icon.
In 2013 came The Turning, an Australian anthology drama film based on a 2005 collection of short stories by Tim Winton. Kurzel's short film contribution, ‘Boner McPharlin's Moll’, explores how gossip and innuendo can create an image of a person that far outshines – and is often at odds – with their real character. The clip below comprises 2 of many vignettes detailing stories about Boner. In both instances, the minimal out-of-focus imagery and atmospheric sounds help foreground the importance of voice, diverting our attention to the hyperbole surrounding Boner's story:
Kurzel's international credits include large-scale productions such as Assassin's Creed (2016), based on the hugely successful fantasy adventure game. While occupying the same universe as the game, the film expands the series' mythology with a new story following Callum 'Cal' Lynch (Michael Fassbender) – put on trial for murder, but at the 11th hour offered a chance at redemption.
Kurzel also directed an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in 2015. An international co-production between the UK and France, the film again starred Fassbender in the leading role of Macbeth. Adam Arkapaw (Kurzel's friend and frequent collaborator) shot the film, and Jed Kurzel (Justin's brother and also a frequent collaborator) composed the score:
Faithful to the source material, the film charts the Scottish general Macbeth's rise to power after receiving a prophecy from 3 witches. However, as we can see in this visually arresting and dour opening scene, it begins with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) laying to rest their dead child. This element does not feature in the original text – though at one point, later in the play, Lady Macbeth alludes to once being a mother. Like True History of the Kelly Gang, the addition of this child is a curious choice and perhaps speaks to the broader motivations of the film's central characters. After all, while Macbeth is a story about desire, neurotic self-absorption, murder, retribution and witchcraft, it also has much to say about patrilineage.
The clip also features the play's opening words spoken by the witches out on the moors. More generally, the witches do not feature as prominently throughout Kurzel's adaptation – and the famous 'Double, double, toil and trouble' sequence is omitted altogether. Kurzel's Macbeth preferences a visual and visceral form of storytelling rather than a literal textual reading – and seeks to explore the inner psychology of Macbeth himself, presenting him not as a confident and triumphant war hero but as a tormented and wounded soul.
Kurzel’s fascination with examining horrific Australian true crime comes full circle with the profoundly unsettling film Nitram (2022), which centres on the months leading up to the 1996 Port Arthur massacre – with an extraordinary portrayal of killer Martin Bryant by the American actor Caleb Landry Jones. The film sparked much controversy for the perception that it gave voice and perspective to a mass murderer. Still, Kurzel and his screenwriter, Shaun Grant, take care not to glorify the event or exploit the victims. The filmmakers also contrived the name Nitram (Martin spelt backwards) to avoid mentioning the real-life killer. Importantly, this film does make one think more deeply about the issues surrounding mental illness, bullying and gun violence.
Justin Kurzel's work often deals with violent and challenging subject matter, and many of his films employ a social realist approach. Still, they are also in different ways concerned with issues around myth and identity formation – this is especially the case with local productions that interrogate 'Australianness', the national character and defining traumatic moments in our history.
Dr John Milner completed his PhD at the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics in 2017 and has published widely on the aesthetics of film, music and art. His work is used in various institutions across Australia and abroad, including as a teaching resource.
Main image: Justin Kurzel on the set of True History of the Kelly Gang. NFSA title: 1588360